Week in Wales: the forager’s holy trinity completed

September 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’ve already written about blackberries during our summer holiday on the North Wales coast. It’s the more unusual samphire and chanterelles that completed my foraging threesome.

I was a samphire virgin before setting out on my coastal trek, scissors and waterproof sandals at the ready. I’d wondered about gathering samphire for years but had been thwarted as the plant didn’t seem to appear in my trusty field guide, Marjorie Blamey and Richard and Alastair Fitter’s classic “The wild flowers of Britain and Northern Europe”. You’ll find rock samphire and golden samphire pictured in loving detail but nothing that looks like the samphire we can buy from up-market fishmongers and fashionable restaurants.

A copy of the River Cottage handbook “Edible Seashore” found on the bookshelves of our holiday house solved the mystery. Expert forager and now author John Wright clearly explains that Marsh samphire Salicornia europaea is a species distinct from Rock samphire Crithmum maritimum although both grow on the coast and both are edible. Crucially, the alternative common name for the marsh samphire is glasswort, the common name used in my wildflower field guide.

Enchantingly, it seems that the name glasswort was given to the plant by itinerant glassmakers from Venice who arrived in Britain in the sixteenth century. The ashes of Salicornia europaea can be used for making crystal clear soda based glass as opposed to the greenish glass based on easier to obtain potash. Who’d have thought it? And it seems a waste to burn it when it is so hard to gather and equally good to eat.

I’d identified the tidal salt marshes between Portmadoc and Portmeirion as likely samphire territory but had never seen the plant actually growing there. Up for a challenge, the hunt started at mid-tide on a glorious beach during a rare spell of afternoon sunshine:

Golden sand is all very well but estuarine mud and the resulting sheltered salt marsh are where you’ll find samphire growing. So, it was a long trudge to the rocky point at the end of the beach with the only navigable way round into the next bay being a clamber up and over this rocky slot:

On the other side, the territory looked much more promising:

And sure enough, I soon found the prize I was after. The field guides will all tell you to pick samphire that’s been washed by every tide. There’s no way to be more certain of this than by picking a plant with its roots lapped by avelets of incoming seawater:

And after a whole afternoon enjoying the thrill of the chase, this was what we ended up with for supper that evening:

This would have been just right for a dainty starter for two served asparagus-style (steamed, with plenty of melted butter). However, we were 6 for supper that evening so I served the samphire as a vegetable accompaniment intermingled with squeaky French beans. The two are quite similar in texture with the samphire providing an interesting salty flavour burst every few mouthfuls.

And if all this sounds like too much trouble, you can always pop into Waitrose, £1.99 for 90g of the stuff although airfreighting it in from Israel is hardly an authentic taste of the British seaside.

On to the chanterelles. I was delighted to find this little clutch of sunshine yellow mushrooms brightening up a woodland walk in the rain on the penultimate day f our holiday.

They were nestling in a mossy bank beneath an ancient oak tree, absolutely classic territory for chanterelles. I picked up a useful new tip for identifying chanterelles and distinguishing between the real thing and the disappointing false chanterelle which is that they should have a mild yet distinct smell of apricots.

I know of no better treatment for chanterelles than to fry them briskly in butter, season with salt and pepper and serve them with softly scrambled egg. I’m not sure if it’s complementary tastes or some sort of egg yolk yellow colour association but either way it’s a great partnership and made a suitably celebratory breakfast for our final morning:

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